Fred Craddock tells of preaching a Lenten sermon on ways in which we deny Jesus. Late in the sermon he recounts an incident that took place late one night in Nashville in the early 1960s. Craddock, a student at the time, was seated in the corner of a diner. He watched many white people be seated. They were quickly served fresh food. Then a tired African-American came in, but was not given a seat. Instead, he stood in a back corner and waited a long time to be recognized.
The cook reached to the back of the grill, took an old, shriveled hamburger patty that had been sitting in the grease, and put it on a plain bun. He handed it to the man without any condiments. The black man limped outside, and sat on the curb, where the road grit thrown up by the passing ten-wheeler became the salt and pepper for the sandwich. Craddock reflected on his own silence during this incident and concluded, “I heard the cock crow.”
After the service, a lawyer who appeared to be about thirty-five years old said to Professor Craddock, “What is his about a rooster crowing in Nashville in the middle of the night. I didn’t know they allowed chickens inside the city limits of Nashville anymore.” The lawyer was not familiar with the role of the cock in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Consequently, the force of the ending of Craddock’s story was lost on the attorney.
This incident illustrates a revolution that is taking place with respect to the assumptions that preachers can make about the listening community. A generation ago, a preacher in a congregation in a long-established denomination could assume the listener would be familiar with the basic stories in the Bible, with fundamental Christian doctrines, and perhaps even with leading themes from the history of the denomination. Preachers could assume their congregations would understand an allusion to the crowing of the cock, or to the long journey of Abraham and Sarah, the murmuring in the wilderness, Esther’s courage, the temptation of Jesus, Lydia’s role in the emerging church, or the new Jerusalem. But with the spread of biblical and theological illiteracy in the late twentieth century, the preacher can no longer assume the congregation is familiar with even basic Christian information or perspectives.
In this article, we explore several arenas in which preachers need regularly to identify and assess our assumptions. Do our assumptions accurately reflect the condition of the listening community today? If not, what changes do we need to make in homiletical practice as we look toward preaching in a new millennium? We begin with assumptions concerning the congregation’s familiarity with the Bible and with Christian beliefs, followed by an examination of the context and dynamics of the community. We then consider practical matters about how people receive and process the sermon. We conclude with the congregation’s view of the church and the sermon.
What Do People Know about the Bible and about Christian Beliefs?
Many people today have only the vaguest acquaintance with the Bible. They are not familiar with the broad outline of biblical history. They may not know about the exile or about Paul’s missionary journeys, or about how the two events are related. Few are familiar with the contents of particular books or with the relationship of those books to biblical history.
The screens of their minds go blank when the preacher speaks of the Chronicler’s revision of the stories of Samuel or the problems of the Corinthian church. Today’s listeners may not be able to recall specific texts that seem commonplace to the preacher. Mention of Psalm 23 or the Sermon on the Mount may meet with a blank stare. Few lay people today have a grasp of the culture of the biblical world. They may think it irrelevant.
Thus, the preacher can no longer casually mention a biblical text on the assumption it will evoke the association or the effect hoped. Indeed, a passing reference to a text may invoke nothing at all. Consequently, preachers are well advised to provide basic information about all biblical texts that appear in the sermon. Of course, the sermon should ordinarily contain exegesis of the biblical text that is the foundation of the message.
The exegesis can provide a historical, literary, and cultural environment within which the text can make sense to the listeners. In addition, the preacher should probably make a habit of providing explanatory data about other biblical references that may appear in the sermon. For instance, if the pastor wishes to draw on the story of David and Bathsheba, the preacher probably needs to tell that story.
As the biblical story is told, the listener makes connections between text and life never made before. New synapses are formed. The listener realizes that the great themes of life and death, joy and sorrow, sacrifice and betrayal, which make up the daily fabric of human existence have always been experienced by the people of God. As these connections are made, listeners discover a pertinence in the biblical narrative to their lives and to their world never appreciated before. The text is no longer a museum piece to observed under a glass covering, but is on the counter to be touched.
What is true about the congregation’s familiarity with the Bible is also true regarding the content of basic Christian doctrine. Formerly the preacher could easily speak of sin, grace, justification, sanctification, the atonement, the trinity, the apostolic faith of the historic creeds. A preacher could speak of “going on to perfection” in the confidence that the listeners had a working understanding of that notion.
Many of today’s listeners are theologically illiterate. Some of them hear the term sanctification, and its meaning passes by on the other side of the mental road. The preacher can no longer assume that people have accurate, or even specific, content to associate with traditional Christian beliefs. Indeed, some people do not have a full-bodied understanding of even basic Christian notions, such as love, peace, or justice.
Even when the people are acquainted with common theological vocabulary, the preacher cannot always assume that the congregation and preacher infuse these words and ideas with the same meanings. For instance, a preacher may use the word God to bespeak a great benevolent Other, a power greater than ourselves who works on our behalf and on behalf of all, who loves the cosmos unconditionally and who wills justice for all created things. Conversely, a person in the congregation may think of Emily Dickinson’s image of God as a hazy, oblong blur or as a stern monarch who sits behind a cosmic desk keeping a ledger of every good and evil deed.
The preacher, then, needs to explain Christian language and belief. A basic principle for today’s preacher is: never assume that the congregation has an accurate grasp of Christian vocabulary or doctrine, not even basic doctrine.
The preacher needs both to define Christian doctrine and to illustrate it with stories that bring the doctrine to life. An illustration helps clarify the point of the doctrine. It helps the listeners grasp the implication of the doctrine in their everyday worlds. And, if it is a story with human depth, it adds to the congregation’s reservoir of experience. For instance, a story on grace would show God’s unmerited favor in concrete action. The community of listeners are consequently better able to identify God’s grace when it is manifested in specific circumstances around them. And the illustration itself becomes a medium through which the congregation has an experience of grace as they hear the story.
The vacuum of understanding of Christian doctrine suggests that the time is ripe for ministers to preach regularly on what Christians believe. A pastor might preach a series in which each sermon explores a different major doctrine; for example: God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church. A preacher might also consider a series that takes a single doctrine and explores aspects of it over several Sundays. For instance, a series on the doctrine of God might include why we can believe in God, how we know God, God’s character, and God’s power in the world.
Can the listeners think as mature Christians?
A preacher may assume that the congregation can think about a text or an issue from a mature Christian perspective. In the sermon, the pastor may presume that the congregation will recognize values, positions and practices as self-evidently Christian. For instance, a preacher may take it for granted that the congregation will recognize that the gospel challenges the growing radical individualism that prevails in middle class Euro-America. In a sermon, the preacher takes sideswipes at the corrupting influence of individualism in the church and in the larger social world, presupposing that the congregation understands (a) the notion of individualism and (b) why individualism is incompatible with the gospel.
However, in today’s setting, the preacher may not be able to assume that the listeners are able to think about texts and issues from the perspective of mature Christian consciousness. For many loyal church-goers there is little significant theological difference between being a member of a church and being a member of a social service club. In their minds, becoming a Christian is reduced to one more identity a person adopts on their personal resume, indistinct from being an American, a Kiwanian, a member of Eastern Star, an executive, homemaker or mechanic.
It may never occur to many parishioners that the Christian faith may call into serious question regular attitudes and behaviors in their lives. They may never have thought of Christianity as offering an alternative world-view. As already noted, many cannot draw in depth from the Bible or Christian doctrine as resources for constructing meaning to everyday life and for becoming the very foundation of that meaning. Often listeners are more informed by the perspectives of medicine, psychology, sociology, and media talk shows than they are by Christian theology. A few listeners are so biblically and theologically uninformed that much of what they hear from the pulpit sounds like an alien tongue. Hearing a sermon each week is like revisiting the tower of Babel, only contributing to their confusion about life.
Furthermore, a growing percentage of people who attend church have difficulty making their way from general principles to concrete application. They are unable to move from an abstraction to its practical implications. A preacher may mention general categories, such as racism or sexism, presupposing that the congregation can think their way from the category to specific situations or behaviors. Some listeners, however, need help in moving from racism to recognizing their own racism and to conceiving of how they might act against racism in specific situations.
Therefore, the preacher may need to help the congregation learn the process of analyzing a text, issue, or situation from a Christian perspective. Following the rule of taking nothing for granted, the preacher may want to help the congregation understand the issue itself, and then recall the content of the gospel and its norms. For what kind of world does the gospel call for? The preacher may then need to lead the congregation in a step-by-step evaluation of the subject from the standpoint of the gospel. For example, rather than taking a sideswipe at individualism, the preacher ought to show why the gospel calls for a communal vision, and why individualism runs against the grain of community.
What is the purpose of the sermon?
In an earlier time, preacher and congregation assumed a common understanding of the purpose of the sermon. In most congregations today this has changed. Pastor and people frequently have widely differing perceptions of what should happen to listeners as a result of hearing a sermon. Interference can result. In the worst case, the preacher can broadcast on one wavelength while the people receive on another, leaving both pastors and listeners confused. The preacher may think, “I follow the best homiletical principles I know, but the people don’t get my sermons.” Some of the parishioners may think, “Our pastor is sincere, but the sermons don’t seem to connect with us.”
The purpose of the sermon is related to the ways in which the preacher and the congregation interpret the status and need of the listeners and God’s initiatives. The following are among the most common understandings of the congregation and the purpose of the sermon:
– The congregation is comprised of hardened sinners who, by nature, are evil and fundamentally corrupt. God uses the sermon to convert the congregation into redeemed servants.
– The congregation is made up of broken people whom God wishes to heal. The sermon can help restore the brokenness of the community.
– The congregation is a group of people who, by nature, want to do what is pleasing to God and what is right for the world. While they stray from what they ought to be and do, proper perception (imparted through the sermon) can lead them to faithfulness.
– The congregation is a body of people ground down, discouraged, demoralized, and in need of help. The sermon provides an encouraging, inspiring, and reviving word that can guide the congregation as they make their way through life.
– The church must attend to its own institutional life. The sermon is designed to promote the institutional well-being of the church by raising a budget, enlisting leaders, or recruiting attendance for church events.
– The church is a prophetic community whose vocation is to challenge injustice and to demand justice. The sermon denounces wrongdoing, calls for repentance, and points the way to a new heaven and a new earth.
– The listeners are seekers in search of the meaning of life. The sermon aims to help the congregation know how their lives — individually and corporately — make sense in the light of ultimate reality.
– The listeners are ignorant of the denomination’s creedal and biblical positions. The sermon is designed to instruct the congregation as to the direction it should be headed and what it should believe.
– The congregation is simultaneously justified and sinful. The sermon assures the congregation of who it is (beloved of God even in a world in which sin continues as an operative force) and what it is to do (respond to God’s love with love in personal and social situations).
Of course, these concerns often exist side-by-side, or overlap, in a preacher’s homiletical program. The list is not exhaustive. But it is easy to see why miscommunication, disappointment or consternation can result when a preacher assumes a prophetic role for a sermon in a situation in which listeners are in need of encouragement.
When the preacher and the listening community are operating with divergent understandings of the purpose of the sermon, the preacher may do two things: First, the preacher may help the congregation broaden its vision of the sermon by interpreting how the preacher understands the purpose of the sermon. The preacher preaches on preaching! Second, the preacher can discern how the congregation understands the purpose of the sermon and can use some of the congregation’s way of thinking as an entry point to the gospel.
For example, a prophetic preacher in a congregation of people who are despairing and in need of encouragement could urge the community to explore systemic reasons in our social order that cause them to feel beaten up by life. If the people want encouragement, they need more than assurance of the divine presence in every circumstance. They need to recognize that the social system itself is in need of redemption.
A corollary: Preachers need regularly to evaluate the degree to which their understandings of the purpose of the sermon are timely and theologically adequate. A congregation’s situation and self-perception change from time-to-time. As a result, the purpose of sermons might change to fit the changing situation of the community. Furthermore, no one of the purposes outlined above reflects the full breadth and depth of the gospel with its assurances and commands.
In order to approximate the fullness of the gospel, the preacher should probably conceive of different purposes for different sermons, with different aims resulting from different theological claims in concert with the different character of different moments in the life of the church and the world. No congregation can be sustained spiritually, biblically, or theologically on the same homiletical menu for long. Sometimes connoisseurs of the finest prime rib prefer a light salad and vice-versa. Preachers need to ensure sermons provide nutrients from all the spiritual food groups.
This is only possible, however, as the preacher begins sermon preparation listening to the deepest needs and yearnings of the people. The preacher must ask what is occurring in the congregation itself? What is happening within the homes of parishioners and their families? What stresses and opportunities in the work place are affecting their lives? What impact do changes in the community make upon their homes? How are current events in the nation and the world enhancing or collapsing their hopes and dreams?
Often the sermon we have to preach is not the sermon the congregation wants or needs to hear. The challenge is to speak a timely word, at once full of compassion and grace and full of God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, including the judgment and promise this vision implies.
The preaching moment is an occasion in which the education, experience, gifts and interests of the pastor intersect with the same forces at work in the lives of listeners in the congregation. The preaching moment is an occasion in which the unstated assumptions concerning how the pastor looks upon the nature of humanity and the world intersect with these same unstated assumptions among listeners in the pew.
Much of what has been said here suggests a widening gulf between the experiences, outlook, and resources preachers and parishioners bring to the preaching moment. The gulf is wide enough today that the preaching moment is rife with potential for conflict between pastor and parish. And yet, acknowledging the gulf and grasping the many ways preacher and congregation may be differentiated is a starting place not only for reconciliation but also for real communication of the gospel. Because, even in the smallest churches, there are always more people in the pew than in the pulpit at any one time, it is the preacher’s responsibility to make the first move in bridging this gulf with the congregation. If the preacher is the one to make the first move, the first move is more likely to occur sooner than later. Preachers would do well to pray hard and often St. Francis’ immortal:
“Help me, Lord, not so much to be understood, as to understand.”
But an awareness of the growing biblical and theological illiteracy and naivete in the congregation can free the preacher to adapt the sermon to listeners who may not only be, from one perspective, more childish in their attitudes, but also more childlike in their eagerness to hear the good news. The message of God’s love does not have to be compromised. In adapting to the congregation the preacher is just more likely to learn how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, even when, much to the preacher’s surprise, that strange land is the sanctuary and some of those who occupy the pews are aliens to the gospel.

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